Department of Mechanics and Engineering Science, College of Engineering, Peking University, Beijing, China; Beijing Innovation Center for Engineering Science and Advanced Technology, Peking University, Beijing, China. Electronic address: [Email]
Membrane nanotubes, also known as membrane tethers, play important functional roles in many cellular processes, such as trafficking and signaling. Although considerable progresses have been made in understanding the physics regulating the mechanical behaviors of individual membrane nanotubes, relatively little is known about the formation of multiple membrane nanotubes due to the rapid occurring process involving strong cooperative effects and complex configurational transitions. By exerting a pair of external extraction upon two separate membrane regions, here, we combine molecular dynamics simulations and theoretical analysis to investigate how the membrane nanotube formation and pulling behaviors are regulated by the separation between the pulling forces and how the membrane protrusions interact with each other. As the force separation increases, different membrane configurations are observed, including an individual tubular protrusion, a relatively less deformed protrusion with two nanotubes on its top forming a V shape, a Y-shaped configuration through nanotube coalescence via a zipper-like mechanism, and two weakly interacting tubular protrusions. The energy profile as a function of the separation is determined. Moreover, the directional flow of lipid molecules accompanying the membrane shape transition is analyzed. Our results provide new, to our knowledge, insights at a molecular level into the interaction between membrane protrusions and help in understanding the formation and evolution of intra- and intercellular membrane tubular networks involved in numerous cell activities.